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Summary:

There’s a lot of confusing noise out there about whether you can bring an unlocked iPhone 5 over to T-Mo’s network and get it to work properly. Here’s the low-down on what the GSM iPhone 5 can and can’t do.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere kicking off the iPhone and T-Mobile's Un-carrier strategy last year
photo: T-Mobile

There have been a lot of conflicting and confusing – and several plain wrong – reports on whether the current version of the iPhone 5 will work on T-Mobile’s new LTE network. I’m sorry to say I even helped spread some of that misinformation by talking about those reports on GigaOM’s mobile call-in podcast on Wednesday. But I’ve since had a chance to talk Apple, and got the details about what exactly the iPhone 5 can do and what it can’t.

Bottom line: if you have a North American GSM version of the iPhone 5 — whether you bought it from AT&T or Apple or got it in from Canada – it can connect to T-Mobile’s new LTE network. It just has to be unlocked. So for AT&T customers looking to switch sides, that means you have to finish your contract, and ask your carrier to unlock the device.

iPhone 5 Lightning dock connectorThe device will also work on T-Mobile’s 3G HSPA+ network (which T-Mobile calls 4G), just not in every city today. T-Mobile is in the process of a big network overhaul that will align all of its networks with the radios in the iPhone and most other AT&T devices. It’s completed the upgrade in about 50 cities covering 142 million people, but other cities are getting converted quickly.

The source of the confusion is over frequencies, which is why we’ve been seeing all of these references to the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) band. T-Mobile runs two technologies in the AWS band, it’s LTE network and a portion of its HSPA+ network. The iPhone 5 will support LTE in the AWS band, but it won’t support HSPA+ over AWS. The iPhone 5, and all previous versions of the iPhone, will work on its new upgraded HSPA+ systems in the PCS band.

Apple will release a new version of the iPhone 5 next month that will make all of the band differences completely moot. The updated version will support HSPA+ on both AWS and PCS band. It will even be able to access T-Mobile’s dual-carrier 42 Mbps HSPA+ network, which current and older versions of the iPhone cannot.

All of this is probably still extremely confusing so I’ve broken it down into a Q&A, which hopefully will answer any lingering questions.

How do I know if my iPhone will work on T-Mobile’s networks?

For the iPhone 5, check your model number. It must be the A1428, sold by AT&T, the Canadian operators or Apple. Older iPhone models will also work on T-Mobile’s 2G and 3G networks. All of these devices must be unlocked, though, or they’ll be blocked.

How can I be sure I’ll have access to T-Mobile’s LTE and HSPA+ networks?

For LTE, it’s simple. T-Mobile launched LTE in seven markets this week: Baltimore, Houston, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Jose, and Washington, D.C. New York City is scheduled to come online this summer along with a bunch of other yet unnamed cities.

For HSPA+, it’s a bit more difficult to tell since T-Mobile doesn’t have any kind of map that tracks which markets have HSPA+ running on the PCS band. They make regular updates on their blog and to the media. PCMag has the most the recent list of T-Mo’s 49 iPhone-optimized cities.

As a general rule of thumb, though, if T-Mobile has LTE in your city, then HSPA+ will be in all the right places, too. And if you get a new version of the iPhone 5 next month, it will work on all of T-Mobile’s network.

When will I be able to bring my old iPhone over to T-Mobile? 

You can do it right now if you like. T-Mobile already has millions of iPhones on its network, running over its 2G and 3G services. In order to access LTE though, you’ll have to wait until Apple updates iOS, authorizing the iPhone 5 to use T-Mobile’s network. Apple hasn’t given a date for when this will happen, saying it will come as an over-the-air update.

Will I be able to access dual-carrier HSPA+?

On a current iPhone, the fastest 3G network you’ll have access to is its 21 Mbps single-carrier system, since all of T-Mo’s dual-carriers are in the AWS band. T-Mobile will eventually launch dual-carrier in the PCS band, but that will take some time. It has to close its acquisition of MetroPCS and convert a lot of old GSM networks to 3G first. If you’re set on accessing the dual-carrier network in the near future, then you’ll need to get one of new versions of the iPhone 5.

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  1. This info was straight from Apple? Good stuff then.

    1. Yep. all of the technical details came directly from Apple. I compiled the Q&A based on that info and from T-Mobile has made public about its networks.

  2. Anyone know is Visual Voicemail works on T-Mo?

    1. yes it does.

      source – myself (t-mobile visual voicemail user)

  3. According to Apple’s official application to the FCC (see below) for approval of the “new” A1428, enabling 3G on AWS “does not require any hardware changes”. Since that’s the case, could you ask Apple why exactly they cannot enable it on the old A1428s by a software update?

    http://www.anandtech.com/show/6860/apple-to-ship-updated-a1428-iphone-5-with-aws-wcdma-enabled-for-tmobile-usa

    1. Craig Campbell Dubo Friday, March 29, 2013

      I agree Dubo,

      If it’s identical hardware, Apple should absolutely offer a software/firmware upgrade to existing unlocked iPhone 5 customers – even if it’s something which you have to take it to an Apple store to do, or mail it in or whatever.

      It’s terrible, terrible customer service to refuse to do this, unless there is some VERY good technical reason why it can’t be done.

      I have the current unlocked iPhone 5, which I bought in December, primarily for use overseas, but also for use on T-Mobile. I do live in a refarmed 1900 HSPA+ market, but find the service to be very disappointing.

      When it works, it works great – the problem is that even in 1900 HSPA+ coverage, the iPhone insists on dropping down to EDGE with frustrating regularity. Toggling 3G off and on will 99% of the time put if back on 3G – until it decides to do it again.

      How much of this is the iPhone’s fault, and how much of it is T-Mobile’s fault, with the way they have defined bands, band preferences, handover and handdown parameters and thresholds – I don’t know. I am inclined to think this is mostly on how T-Mobile have configured the network though. I also have an international Galaxy Note II GT-N7100 and Galaxy Note 10.1 GT-N8000 and both exhibit the same phenomenon. However, in the case of the android devices, I can through settings or test-mode, disable the 2G/EDGE band in the phone. This has the great advantage of forcing the phone to remain on the 1900 HSPA+ far more often, but the significant drawback that when it loses the 1900 HSPA+ signal, service is completely lost.

      My opinion is that T-Mobile have things set up too much in favour of their EDGE bands to make the 1900 HSPA+ a reliable band. It’s very disappointing.

  4. The map of PCS HSPA+:
    http://airportal.de/

  5. Will the Verizon or Sprint iPhones work with Tmobile?

    1. Craig Campbell Bugzz Friday, March 29, 2013

      The unlocked (as it is out of the box) Verizon iPhone 5 will work on T-Mobile 1900MHz HSPA+ for 3G. If you live in a refarmed market, you should get 3G coverage (but in my experience in a refarmed market, it’s spotty). Outside a refarmed market, you will get 2G/EDGE speeds.

      I have no idea about the Sprint iPhone 5.

  6. Will the new iOS update put the “cellular data network” information by itself or will the uses need to input it by themselves as we used to?

  7. What about iPhone 4S will I be able to go as fast as AT&T right now?

  8. “My opinion is that T-Mobile have things set up too much in favour of their EDGE bands to make the 1900 HSPA+ a reliable band. It’s very disappointing.”
    This is exactly why I left T-Mobile over two years ago. I tried several of their branded phones, and they all dropped to Edge regularly, especially when making a call. It is their network.

    “According to Apple’s official application to the FCC (see below) for approval of the “new” A1428, enabling 3G on AWS “does not require any hardware changes”. Since that’s the case, could you ask Apple why exactly they cannot enable it on the old A1428s by a software update?”
    AnandTech knows their stuff. I believe this will come out in the wash, in the next few weeks.

    Btw, even though it is “illegal” to unlock your iPhone now, look on the web. It can be done for a couple of bucks, and you are then not at the mercy of good old AT&T……….

  9. Why does my iphone 5 have a model number of ND294LL/A
    It’s unlocked and using tmobile but no 3G only edge?
    Any help please….

    1. Hi Paul,

      Where did you buy your iPhone (for which carrier)?

  10. mcnucklefuts Tuesday, April 2, 2013

    Did you happen to ask about the Canadian model? Will they continue to sell the NON-AWS HSPA+ model? Or are ALL North American GSM models being updated to support this new band?

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